Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Covenant and believers' baptism, continued

After the previous series (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven), we're now looking at the second post from David Field, a lecturer at Oak Hill College (Anglican), UK, "New covenant and antipaedobaptism".

By "antipaedobaptist", Dr. Field means what we'd mean by "Baptist" of "credobaptist" - someone who believes that baptism is properly only for those who profess faith. Reformed Baptists all hold that the New Covenant differs from the Old in its efficacy - it is perfectly efficacious towards all its members. Christ saves to the uttermost all - not just some - of those who come to him under it (Hebrews 7:25). Many members of the Old Covenant needed to be exhorted to "know the Lord", because they only knew him outwardly and weren't truly saved - not so under the New (Hebrews 7:11). Many under the Old Covenant were only ceremonially purified; under the New, all of our sins are forgiven and we are heirs of salvation (Hebrews 8:12-13).

Dr. Field begins by telling us that it isn't his aim to discuss whether this notion of the New Covenant as perfectly efficacious, i.e. unbreakable, is correct or not, but to work out some of the logical implications and contradictions if that were assumed to be so:
This is not about whether the New Covenant is "unbreakable". I do not grant that it is but I am exploring things as though it were true to see what happens. Mind you, if it is "unbreakable" then it's the same thing as the big-R regenerate (systematic category) and the big-E Elect, i.e. certain in God's decree and inaccessible to us. So, if the New Covenant is "unbreakable" then it is (directly speaking, rather than as it tells us about God and his ways) un-usable because it is inaccessible. Got that? Unbreakable NC = inaccessible = un-usable.
Dr. Field said in the earlier post that he didn't know if any Baptists actually held that position - an admission I found rather odd, as he was himself at one time both a Baptist and a theological lecturer, before becoming a Presbyterian. He seems to be making the admission that he made this change in position without understanding the distinctives of either the position he was leaving or the one he was adopting. He proceeds to tell us that he has just consulted a book (for the first time??) by a Reformed Baptist, and was surprised to find that this was indeed the position taken:

But I've just taken a look at a book on "believer's baptism" and it did what I said in my Covenantal Category Confusion post was invalid. I said that you can't argue from the unbreakability of the new covenant to antipaedobaptism.

But the book I've been reading tries to do so. Like this:
1. Non- big-E Elect people were members of the Old Covenant
2. The New Covenant is different - all in the New Covenant are big-E Elect, big-R Regenerate
3. So baptism is for believers only
4. And therefore not for babies.

So, what's weird? As before, the answer is not that these premises are contradicted by the Bible (though I assume he would argue that) - it's that they contain an inherent logical contradiction which makes it logically impossible for them all to be true at once. (Note that the terminology of "big-E Elect, big-R Regenerate" is assuming some of Dr. Field's own "Federal Vision" theology and wouldn't make a meaningful distinction within Calvinistic Baptist theology).

Here's the first reason why it's weird:
How could 3. follow from 2.?  Unless you thought that all (recognizable by us for the purposes of deciding who to baptize) believers were Elect. (see the next post for more on this)
In other words, you can't travel from "the New Covenant is made with those who are true Christians" (2) to "the sign of the New Covenant should only be administered to those who give credible evidence of being true Christians". Why not? Because, says Dr. Field, it would imply that we must be able to infallibly recognise this evidence and distinguish it from a counterfeit. This is why he defined the "big-E elect" in the previous paragraph as being "in God's decree and inaccessible to us". Did you get that? It's because Dr. Field says that the elect are by definition inaccessible, that it's impossible for election to be directly related to covenant membership and the application of the covenant sign.

Dr. Field, though, has confused two different things. It is one thing for God's secret decree of election to be inaccessible as far as utter certainty goes. It is quite another for it to be inaccessible as far as manifesting itself in history goes. If election had no manifestation in history, then there would be no hope for the world - whatever God's eternal purposes were for us, they would be hidden and irrelevant to day to day life. But election does very much manifest itself in the ordinary activities of every day life - because Joe Jones, who used to be a drunkard and a mocker at religion is now sober, home from work on time to show love to his wife and children every night, and professing love to the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in his death on the cross as his hope for everlasting glory. That's not hidden - that's the manifest work of God, marking out one of his children. Yes, people can be deluded. A man can have a pyschological experience and have a well-meaning Christian tell him that he's now saved and should be baptised. But if there's no real root of faith there, then Matthew 13 (the parable of the sower) tells us what will happen - sooner or later, he'll show it when the weeds choke him or the sun causes him to shrivel. Election has results in day to day life, which are far from being invisible and inaccessible.

Well, we haven't said anything new here, because Dr. Field hasn't either - he's just continued to beat some more life out of the starting assumption that election and real life belong in two hermetically sealed compartments, and never the twain shall meet. Here's something I want to draw out a bit more, though: Dr. Field isn't actually arguing here against Baptists. I've noticed a common feature joining some different theological tribes out there at the moment. Federal Visionists, followers of the New Perspective, and the so-called "Reformed Catholics" all seek to reject elements of traditional Reformed thought which are common to Baptists and (the vast bulk of) Presbyterians, but instead of actually doing so in a straightforward way, they pin it all on the Baptists.

What do I mean? Well, historically Presbyterians, who are paedobaptists and not "antipaedobaptists", have been happy to define the New Covenant as being made with the elect and their children. Babies of believers are to be baptised, so they say, because God's covenants are always made not only with discreet individuals, but also with their offspring. The New Covenant, then, they say is made with the elect, and their children too, who are thus entitled to the Covenant sign.

Note then that Dr. Field's arguments have exactly the same force against this traditional Reformed position. He's not arguing particularly against Baptists - he's arguing against a far more widespread belief that is shared by Baptists, not exclusively belonging to them. He's arguing from a point of assuming the Federal Vision to be true, which means not just that Baptists are wrong, but the overwhelming bulk of other Reformed folk too. I have yet to work out just why in the minds of FVers, NPers and RCs, it's necessary to pick out Baptists as the fall guys and why they don't spell out the implications of their arguments more clearly.

How do we get from 2 to 3? (The New Covenant is made with the elect -> only those who profess faith should be baptised). Easy. When a person does not profess faith, there is no evidence that they belong to the New Covenant. They might profess faith later in life, but as yet we simply have no grounds to believe that they belong to the Covenant for which baptism is the sign. It's not weird; it's not even slightly weird, and you don't have to be a theological professional to get it - you just have to avoid swallowing lots of prior assumptions before you come to the matter. So far Dr. Field's just been arguing in a circle - he assumes that the Federal Vision is true, applies some of the results of that assumption to baptism, and then demonstrates to us that the Baptist position can't co-exist with it. Surely we already knew that.

To be continued...

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